Fritz trying to take the next big step

Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
The 25-year-old from Rancho Santa Fe began his quest for a title at the U.S. Open with a straight-set victory over fellow Southern Californian Steve Johnson.

NEW YORK — Taylor Fritz has enough pressure on him, so he doesn’t need to be reminded of the fact that no American male tennis player has won a Grand Slam Tournament in 20 years.

It was Andy Roddick who won the U.S. Open in 2003. Since then, it has been the sport’s Holy Trinity of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic who have dominated the proceedings in Queens.

But Federer has retired, Nadal is not here and Djokovic is not getting any younger. However, that doesn’t mean the door is open for someone like Fritz to walk through. He may be a top-10 seed at Flushing Meadows (He’s No. 9) but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

“The biggest thing is what we all get asked at every press conference since my career started,” Fritz said prior to the tournament regarding the U.S. drought on the men’s side. “He’s the last one to win one so that’s what we’re all used to hearing.

“Andy’s a great guy. We love him. Yeah, we’ve all been trying to be the next one to win a slam because that’s the legacy, really.”

Fritz, 25, who lives and plays out of Rancho Santa Fe, Calf., is here at the U.S. Open hoping he can elevate his game enough to be a factor in the second week and try and upset the Djokovic-Carlos Alcaraz apple cart at Flushing Meadows. He is the top-seeded American male, just ahead of 10th-seeded Frances Tiafoe, who has had a remarkable season and is seeking similar heights.

Monday, Fritz squared off with another Southern Californian — 33-year-old Steve Johnson of Orange — on the court at Louis Armstrong Stadium.The two are very familiar with each other, having met six previous times going back to 2016 with Fritz holding a 4-2 edge head-to-head.

This one wasn’t even close. Fritz dominated and dispatched Johnson in straight sets — 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 to advance to the second round Wednesday against Peru’s Juan Pablo Varillas.

“Yeah, I felt like I played pretty solid, how I have been playing,” said Fritz. “Yeah, it was just good that, you know, I got on the court and was calm, felt confident, was able to just play the same way I had been playing in practice. 

“Last year I had a really good practice leading into my first round, too, and then I got on the court and was just nervy and couldn’t play how I had been playing. I did a light bike workout after the match because I actually felt I needed a little more volume considering I’ll have a day off tomorrow.”

The match was delayed nearly two hours as Sloane Stephens battled back in her opening-round match against Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia which went three sets and lasted just shy of three hours. Once he finally got to play, it took Fritz just an hour and 20 minutes to get his work done. Apparently, the delay didn’t bother him one bit.

He put on a brilliant display of tennis. He was serving great (10 aces). His points on his first serve were 100 percent (23-of-23). He had 34 winners to just 10 unforced errors and he had 81 total points won while breaking Johnson seven times. 

Fritz obviously can’t worry about what the top seeds are doing here. His focus needs to be on himself and continuing that climb. He has never advanced beyond the third round here and he finally got to .500 with Monday’s win. His best run in a Slam came in 2022 when he got to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. His No. 9 ranking on the ATP Tour is the highest in his career and he has been rising steadily, from No. 105 back in 2017 to being a top-50 player each of the last four years to his current top-10 spot. So there’s still room for Fritz to grow. 

“I think I’m a better player now than I was last year,” he said. “If anything, I mean, there is just as much pressure, but I think I just can go about handling it better. And I already have.

His critics say he may have plateaued though I’m not sure about that. He has three wins this year (United Cup, Delray Beach and Atlanta) and has been a semifinalist on six other occasions. That’s a good run for anyone and the fact he has catapulted himself into a world’s top-10 player should give hope to American tennis fans that the best may still be to come.

His problem is Alcaraz has become a force in such a short period of time and Djokovic isn’t ready to leave the stage anytime soon. They are simply at a higher level than everyone else. So when you’re talking about finally ending the American 20-year drought at the Slams, it may take longer than everyone wants. Plus, Daniil Medvedev, Jannik Sinner, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev are chasing Alcaraz and Djokovic as well, so the road to the top is crowded.

And the American contingent is strong. Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Christopher Eubanks and Sebastian Korda are all seeded in the field showing there is some depth.    

“Yeah, there is always going to be a lot of pressure, just as an American playing the US Open,” he said. “There is no other way to put it. Like obviously all the Grand Slams are equal in points, but for an American, the US Open is always going to be the most important one.

“There is definitely a lot of pressure. I don’t think there is any more pressure on me than there is on, let’s say, Frances. I don’t think it’s just me being the No. 1 American. I think just being top Americans and having high expectations for this week is something that we just have to kind of live with and deal with.

”I mean, I don’t care. Obviously I want to be the one that ends it, but, I mean, so does Frances, so does Tommy, so do all the other Americans. That doesn’t really change anything. I guess that’s not on my mind. I want to win a slam.”